My writing project is one that has centered creating dialogues with artists concerned with the politics of identity, power and the institutionalized art world. Over the course of the last several years, the articles I’ve published have grown out of studio visits I’ve had with an array of emerging and established artists. Many of the artists I’ve written about, I have done so over and over again, tracking their careers, success and failures, from one exhibition to the next. It’s a way for me to try to glimpse inside the artist studio and show an artist thinking about the things that shape us.
It was especially exciting to receive an invitation from Artadia to visit several of their Atlanta based artist grantees: Clark Ashton, Lauri Stallings, Ruth Dusseault, Fahamu Pecou, Tristan Al Haddad, Michi Meko, Don Cooper and Paul Stephen Benjamin. Shortly after arriving, I visited the home studio of the abstract painter, Don Cooper. We discussed how his colorful meditative paintings that often features the Bindu–a Sanskrit term for central dot–is a reflection of ritual, consciousness and spirituality. I was particularly struck by a series of black and white photographs Cooper shot when he served in Vietnam. They are intimate images of his fellow soldiers and the army dogs they cared for that provided a look into the ways in which the artist and his Army unit used art to deal with the fog of war. The next visit was with the conceptual artist, Paul Stephen Benjamin. Benjamin’s practice that explores blackness through video, sculpture, installation and painting, closely aligns with the kinds of question that I often explore in my writing. I was particularly struck by Benjamin’s effective use of archival images and video of notable black figures such as Nina Simone, Marianne Anderson and Lebron James in works like “Black” (2014), to ask, “What does blackness look like? What does it sound like? What does it feel like?” The self-portraiture of Fahamu Pecou, I saw in his studio later in my visit, also raise similar questions surrounding identity, transcendence and spirituality seen both in Coopers and Benjamin’s art.
Each artist I visited were working through questions that explored the politics of right now. They were not so much interested in answers as they were in holding up the questions in their work. The performance, I saw while visiting the choreographer Lauri Stallings’ studio at the 117-year old factory space at The Goat Farm Arts Center, used the body to think through the limitations and expansiveness of public choreographies and place building across geographies of history. “You have history in heart, history in your mind and history in your feet,” Stallings told me during the studio visit. “I’m suggesting that that’s powerful and we can go from there.”
The idea of constructing space was on full display during my visits with other artists too. Visiting with Clark Ashton, I got a sense of the spatial politics shaping the local histories in Atlanta. Aston, a welder, has turned his home into a monument, “Druid Hill,” that features an array of sculptural installations. “The Bateman 5000, “The Battle of Druid Hill,” and “Mechanical Riverfront Kingdom,”among others, brilliantly challenges ideas of what makes something a historical landmark. My delightful tour of Aston’s project was followed by a visit with the documentary photographer and filmmaker, Ruth Dusseault. The artist’s focus on permanent and fleeting utopian communities across the United States, provided a fascinating glimpse into the ways whiteness constructs space and how white Americans are seeking to deal with the ways technology has upset and entrenched privileges. The role of technology in society was also a touchstone during the conversation I had with the artist and designer Tristan Al-Haddad in his studio. Al-Haddad’s Formations Studio, a collective that fuses art, architecture and science to make large-scale interactive works, was in the midst of fabricating, “Nimbus,” a public sculptural installation commissioned by the city of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Al-Haddad’s practice uses technology to rethink the possibilities of how to serve many publics at once.
At Atlanta Contemporary, I decided that I wanted to use my public program to highlight the idea of dialogue. I invited two artists, Atlanta Contemporary artist in residence Masud Olufani and Artadia grantee Michi Meko, to take the space and do what they wanted with it and after engage me in a conversation about their studio practices. It was a simple gesture meant to highlight that often artists of color do not get to use institutionalized spaces like museums and galleries to explore their concerns. Both artists decided to give brief lectures about their practices and then I had conversations with them before allowing the audience to join the dialogue by asking questions and making comments.
During my trip to Atlanta, I also spent time with the emerging photo-conceptual artist Davion Alston and an afternoon at the High Museum of Art. The weekend provided me with an opportunity to meet with a diversity group of artists working locally in Atlanta. What struck me most was that their practices may differ but their concerns are rooted in questioning identity, history, place and the possibilities of art making as a tool of investigation. Their art and the important questions it raises fit into a larger context of concerns that I have seen artists wrestle in studios across the globe.
Antwaun Sargent is a writer and critic living and working in New York City. Recently he wrote “We Are More Than This,” an essay for the Tate Modern on the occasion of the museum’s exhibition, “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” and is in conversation with filmmaker and artist Arthur Jafa in the Dallas Museum of Art’s “Truth: 24 frames per second” exhibition catalogue.His writing has appeared in the New Yorker and The New York Times. This summer he is co-curating the 2018 Aperture Summer Open.